A legacy that started with a lunch

The first Women of the Year Lunch in 1955 – at which 500 exceptional women were honoured – was the brainchild of Tony (Antonella) Lothian, a 33-year-old mother of six. It took place at a time when Britain was radically changing as a result of the war and the Labour government that followed, which she voted for, and was the first of its kind.

From her childhood in Italy, Tony had always championed the underdog. Whilst at school in Nazi Germany, aged 16, she found out from a cleaner about the persecution of the Jews and was frustrated and dismayed that she couldn’t get anyone to talk openly about it. Later she wrote: ‘Childhood loneliness was lifted by daydreaming, nearly always about my leading a campaign against injustice.’

Whilst she was a nursing auxiliary during the war, Tony married Peter Kerr, 12th Marquess of Lothian. The bride and groom were both 21. Peter worked for successive Conservative governments, whilst Tony helped a variety of charities and wrote for The Catholic Mother, the magazine of the Mothers’ Union. She loved the miner’s, farmer’s and fishermen’s wives who were the readers, saying they, and the difficult lives they lived, reminded her of the Tuscan villagers she had grown up amongst as a child. As a witness to her husband’s life, Tony saw how much informal, but crucial and effective, networking and problem-solving was done by the powerful men in the circles he moved in.

She grew increasingly convinced that the same opportunity should be available to women, and infuriated that it wasn’t. She came up with the idea of creating a charity lunch where women could be recognised and celebrated for their achievements, but also network with and learn from each other. Tony’s proposal wasn’t exactly met with immediate enthusiasm. She was told, by both men and women, that she wouldn’t find 500 women who fitted her invitee criteria.

Undeterred, she enrolled two friends as co-founders: journalist Lady Georgina Coleridge and Odette Hallowes, a British spy whom the Nazis caught and tortured in France. The three made a list of 40 categories of work and enterprise, identifying one woman in each category who they asked to nominate any outstanding colleagues. The first ground-breaking lunch took place on 29 September in 1955, and the 500 specially selected women not only gave each other a rousing reception, but also raised much-needed funds for the Greater London Fund for the Blind.

Tony did not want to use the lunch to elevate the already famous; she preferred to find special women who had not been noticed. Many of her unknowns went on to become well known.

She had a particular respect for women who work with their hands – from cooks and carers to cheesemakers and foster mothers. In 2001 it was decided to give special awards to a small number of outstanding women. Their stories, shared through videos of their work and achievements, and then in-person giving of the specially-designed Frink award, have become a highlight of the lunch.

Women of the Year Award winners 2015

Cokie van der Velde, Kristin Hallenga, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Jayne Senior, Dame Stephanie Shirely and Pat Rogers sit alongside Women of the Year Chair, Jane Luca and host Sandi Toksvig in 2015.

Prudential Women of the Year Leadership Award: Dany Cotton, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade

Dany Cotton, Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, receives the Women of the Year Leadership Award from Prudential

Maggie Aderin-Pocock receives the Women of the Year Innnovation Award

Space scientist and educator, Maggie Aderin-Pocock, receives the Women of the Year Vodafone Innovation Award in 2019

Tony continued to attend the lunch as long as she was able, towards the end of her life via video, and her distinctive black and red outfits, pirate’s eye patch (she lost her eye to cancer) and gravel-voiced jokes and calls to action about whatever injustice had galvanised her, were an important hallmark of the event. She remained a passionate supporter of women and an equally passionate campaigner against injustice, long after she was confined to a wheelchair in her home in the borders of Scotland, and right up to her death in 2007. Speakers at the Women of the Year Lunch have often raised global issues before they were aired in the international arena.

In 1980, Margaret Gowing, Oxford Professor of the History of Science, warned that the Earth could be destroyed by the atomic arms race. In 1984, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in Space, urged the women of Britain to join those in Russia to end the Cold War. Three years later, Valentina invited Tony to the World Congress of Women in the Kremlin, where they heard Gorbachev announce Glasnost and Perestroika. Tony believed that bringing together women in powerful positions and those doing vital work on the ground, women with a global platform and those engaged with local communities, was the beating heart of Women of the Year and the power it had, and has, to effect change. The lunch continued to raise money for various charities, until, in 2001 it launched its own Foundation to help support and nurture underprivileged women in this country and abroad. Among Tony’s criteria for a woman to be invited to the lunch were unselfishness and usefulness. She would certainly encourage us to value the women helpers who care for our young and old, and all the most vulnerable in our communities.

Maureen Paton’s book about the lunch, The Best of Women: the History of Women of the Year, has a dedication by Tony: ‘To all the women whose work all over the world upholds communities now and in the future.’

We are still upholding Tony’s vision and still recognising and applauding all the women who play their part in making our world a better place for everyone.

Marie Colvin with Ruby Wax

The formidable journalist Marie Colvin at a Women of the Year lunch, embracing entertainer and mental health advocate, Ruby Wax.